A couple of things come to mind when thinking about puppets. The first is that they are inherently strange. They’re objects which sit firmly inside that “uncanny valley,” which is probably why they’ve become a favored motif of the horror genre. But they’re also profoundly empathetic things — their likeness, familiarity, and childlike essence make them a powerful, emotive source.
Most recently, when thinking about puppets in relation to games, I’ve thought about Tarsier Studios’ Little Nightmares. Over the years plenty of games have utilized techniques like stop-motion and clay animation (Hylics, Armikrog, Dujanah, The Swapper) and while Little Nightmares opts for the more traditional digital animation, for me, it’s a series that still feels intimately puppet-like. It’s also, as Astrid Rose argues in her excellent study of the original game, a series indebted to the work of Czech puppeteer and filmmaker Jan Svankmajer. Formerly entitled “Hunger,” Little Nightmares, which takes place in a space called the “Maw” and features twin chefs and disgustingly ornate kitchen and restaurant levels, is consistently reminiscent of Svankmajer’s grotesque filmography, particularly his 1992 short Food.
A lot has been made of Little Nightmares’ pint-sized protagonists: Mono and Six. Much of the potency of the horror comes via a contrast in perspective. The world is large and adult-sized; the characters are tiny and childlike. But, while Tarsier is clear about its goal for players to see the world “through different eyes,” and one of the foundational pillars of the series is “how does a kid see the world?” Mono and Six don’t really read as children to me. They’re child-sized puppets.
The two characters not only look like puppets, they move and control like them, too. Platforming in both games feels suitably weighty with just this slight disconnect. As if it takes a moment for the figures to react to the pulling of their strings. This particular element is often criticized — it feels too “floaty” — but I think thematically it works in these games’ favor, as it does in another of my favorite 2D puzzle-platformers: INSIDE. Its own boy-protagonist controls in a similar fashion. Though again, he’s not really a boy (although it really looks it here!) but a puppet. He is controlled by both the player and, within the game’s very own fiction, the giant fleshy blob who is, the entire time, manipulating the boy in order to orchestrate its own escape. This theme of puppetry is also mirrored by the way you’re forced throughout the game to use mind-control devices to, well, puppet husks.
Beyond its eerie little protagonists, Little Nightmares 2 is filled with puppet imagery. In the hunter’s cabin you meet a stuffed, taxidermied family propped up round a dinner table. Up in the attic there are wooden masks and spare limbs gathering dust in boxes. Later, in the School, you’re accosted by a bunch of bullies modeled on porcelain dolls, whilst the Hospital is filled with creatures made entirely of prostheses.
While the empathetic connection to Mono and Six is obvious, many of the other puppet-like creatures in Little Nightmares are monstrous and antagonistic. Nevertheless, there’s sorrow in the stuffed family, and even sympathy built for the porcelain bullies. In one of the game’s most memorable moments, Mono faces off with one wearing a dunce cap. Tethered to a blackboard, he charges you and the rope pulls at his neck, whipping him back dramatically. He’s a pitiful character, but an important one, because for the first time you’re allowed to show sympathy and sneak by him. As opposed to simply shattering his porcelain skull with a blunt object.
This kind of built empathy for the Other — which, to be fair, is used sparingly in Little Nightmares — is something that pairs well with puppets. They are objects which are not only filled with a spirited, childlike energy, but can sometimes even be used to make more radical statements. In Adam Whybrays’s “The Art of Czech Animation: A History of Political Dissent and Allegory”, he argues that the puppetry and stop-motion techniques of filmmakers like Jan Svankmajer and Jiří Barta are actually able to deepen our ecological awareness and understanding of the natural world. By imaginatively imbuing inanimate objects with life and energy, it “de-centres the human world and gives a voice to the non-human.”
There’s no better example of this than last year’s lesser-known 2D puzzle-platformer, Creaks. Radim Jurda, lead designer and artist on the game, told me of how he came to work under the legendary Czech animator, Jiří Barta.
“Even though I had no animation experience at the time, I decided to apply for his animation studio, as I thought we shared a similar sense of poetics and humour,” he explained. “What I liked most about his approach was that he didn’t just work within one particular style but was constantly exploring new techniques that best fit with the film he’s working on.”
“For a long time I was surrounded by traditional Czech art, animation and graphical techniques, and I soaked it all up and developed an affection for it,” Jurda continued. “I’ve also always wanted to see these techniques in video games. It’s the same with my school friend and co-author of Creaks, Jan Chlup. He made the mechanical paintings you find in the game, all of which are actual oil paintings. I love the idea that this might be the first game to use such techniques.”
The oil paintings Jurda mentions are extra collectibles found throughout Creaks’s vast, ramshackle environment. Creepy, wind-up, clockwork paintings, you tug on their levers to animate strange Max Ernst-inspired avian puppet figures dressed in period clothing. Often the operating strings, joints, and mechanisms are all visible.
“The paintings broaden the world of Creaks,” artist Jan Chlup added. “The original idea was to fill the house with baroque portraits of the current inhabitants’ predecessors, but we ended up going with more general poetic scenes. We kept the figures but added landscapes. The characters are usually doing something strange, something that resembles human behavior, but with a twist. Each scene is a window to the outer world and shows fragments of the history and mythology of the house.”
While the original inspiration behind the paintings were rococo British painters like Thomas Gainsborough, they later became playable mini-games, or what Chlup refers to as “19th century arcade machines.” They would show what an endless runner or dancing arcade might look like if created a century or more ago.
“We wanted to make obvious their mechanical substance so we used cut-out animation,” Chlup elaborated.
For this the team were aided by Pavel Pachta, a professional animator who worked mostly with puppets using analog techniques. “When Pachta joined the team he had no experience with digital animation. But he had plenty of experience with physical puppetry. He worked on ‘Fimfárum Jana Wericha’ and Jiří Barta’s ‘Toys in the Attic,’ for example. He brought the essence of puppetry to Creaks,” Jurda said.
Many of Jiří Barta’s films also include elaborate wooden sets. In his 1986 The Pied Piper, the town is made up of distorted, rickety wood in a heavily expressionist style. The onomatopoeic Creaks has a similar wooden quality. Its groaning, lopsided architecture is a constant pressure.
“While I was working on a school project I went into Prague’s Barrandov Studios, which is where Barta, Trnka and other famous Czech animators’ films were made,” Jurda told me. “There would be physical pieces of their sets everywhere. I spent quite some time in this environment, so I suspect I soaked a lot of it up. Also, the short puppet animation I did there was made entirely out of wood!”
One idea central to Creaks is pareidolia — that of seeing things like faces, animals, and even people in random objects or unrelated assortments of stimuli. Jurda added that “The trick in Creaks is that the objects from our imagination really do come to life.” He was inspired by real-life occurrences where he’d interpreted things wrongly, but his brain had filled in the gaps. “I was thinking about visualization for this and thought of situations where you’re in a dark room and a silhouette reminds you of a monster. I liked the idea that these monsters could really come alive.”
There are several of these monsters in Creaks. An aggressive dog becomes a chest of drawers; a floating jellyfish creature transforms into a model globe; a strange shadow-mimic turns into a coat-stand; a goat that turns out to be a chair. Add to this the jumble of prying eyes and ghostly visages that you sometimes spot nestled among the game’s baroque, hand drawn backgrounds, and Creaks is a game filled entirely with inanimate objects brought to life.
When I ask Jurda about his thoughts on the radical potential of animators like Barta, he tells me that, as in his game Creaks, there’s a certain element of decentering the human by focusing on creatures. Many of which often represent animals.
“My understanding of Barta’s films is that they can give us a new way to look at human behavior,” he said. “A different angle. For example, in Barta’s ‘The Vanished World of Gloves’, objects represent human characters. He’s also giving attention to all these lost and forgotten objects. Finding the beauty in these elements – I think that’s part of his poetry.”
From the mechanical oil paintings and creaky wooden backdrops, to pareidolia and furniture-creatures, Creaks uses puppetry to bring energy and agency to an assortment of lifeless objects. Alongside Little Nightmares, this is a game interested in, and empathetic towards, nonhuman things. These are concepts that children seem more familiar with — animal perspectives, tiny creatures, puppets, and toys, all possessing the ability to vividly spring to life. Sometimes we lose touch with that as we grow older. Yet these games, as dark as they often are, seem unrepentantly enthusiastic about connecting us to these larger, more provocative worlds again. Right now I think we could benefit from showing a little more empathy towards the nonhuman. Thinking about puppets is as good a start as any.